Monday, September 28, 2009

Art about Art

Last Friday night was the first installment of this season’s monthly Review Panel at the National Academy Museum, a series that consistently ranks among the few not-boring art panels in the history of the Universe. This time, as usual, moderator David Cohen stirred the pot, while panelists David Carrier, David Brody, and the razor-sharp Linda Nochlin (whose feminism, with her insistence on the word “germinal” rather than “seminal,” has not flagged) weighed in on four current gallery exhibitions: Maya Lin, Chris Ofili, Kehinde Wiley, and Janine Antoni.

Kehinde Wiley, After John Raphael Smith's A Bacchante after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2009, Photograph, 31 5/8 x 39"

The last two contained examples of “art about art”: Most of Kehinde Wiley’s photographs are examples of young Black hip-hop guys in the same pose as famous women from art history (odd that no one mentioned Robert Colescott here), and Janine Antoni’s refers to, among other things, Louise Bourgeois’s multiplicitous spiders.

Janine Antoni, Inhabit, 2008, Digital C-print, 116 ½ x 72”.

You know my stance on wall text (so can imagine my reaction when David Carrier said he didn’t fully grasp the Wiley paintings without the labels) but have I ranted sufficiently about how utterly lame I think most “art about art” is? Especially when it devolves, like the Antoni piece, into a game of “Find That Reference.”

I want to see art that’s powerful enough to keep me in the experience all on its own, not as a comment on something else, and not something that I have to bring extraneous information to—such as the “artist’s intention”—in order to “get” it.

Or, to put it another way, reference to other art, or anything outside the work itself, triggers an intellectual response that can get in the way of an emotional one. It offers only one interpretation, which makes for a closed circuit, rather than serving as a stimulus to the viewer’s imagination and opening it up to myriad possibilities.

“Art about art” is a lose/lose situation: if artists are better than those they reference, the citation only drags them to a lower level—and if they’re not as good (somewhere I think I used the example of David Salle’s paintings after Chardin) then all the viewer can think about (after “Oh yeah, Chardin”) is how they’d rather be looking at the original..

Uh, except maybe in this case…

Kehinde Wiley, After Jean-Bernard Restout's Sleep, 2009, Photograph, 30 5/8 x 49 1/8"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Brain overhaul

Jasper Johns, The Critic Sees, 1961

As I’ve boasted elsewhere on this blog, that despite being a certain age, I have nearly perfect vision, distant and near, and don’t require glasses even to read a telephone book (not that anyone uses them anymore). But I noticed changes in my focusing ability in the last couple of years, so took myself to a behavioral optometrist in Northampton who pronounced my eyes healthy and my vision good except for a “convergence problem.” When I told her I didn’t believe in glasses she said was not against them entirely and there were situations where they could be helpful, but mine was not one of them and in fact glasses would make the condition worse.

The upshot was that I had an hour-long test on Thursday and, in addition to doing 15-20 minutes of daily exercises on my own, for the next six months will be driving to Northampton once a week for vision therapy. What’s interesting about the test was that it didn’t seem to have as much to do with the eyes as the brain. It was all about perception (“look at this image and tell me which of the images below matches it”) and visual memory (“look at this image for 5 seconds and after I take it away tell me which one it matches”) and reading comprehension.

The last reading comprehension test I took was in high school, where I excelled at being an “under-achiever” in the parlance of the day. In an effort to get at the root of the problem (nobody figured out that I just wasn’t interested) I was given a reading comprehension test on which I scored 100%, but because they didn’t know what else to do with me I was put in remedial reading class anyway—after which (surprise!) I again scored 100%.

This time my score was 80% and when I was taking this and the other tests (which I would have assumed, being an artist, I’d be better at than most—and might be for all I know; Michelle, the therapist was supremely noncommittal) I could almost feel parts of my brain being grouchily awakened, as if from deep sleep. It was actually uncomfortable, not fun at all, and in order to prepare for the hour-plus drive back I took a therapeutic walk—to the candy store for a dark chocolate pecan turtle.

My chiropractor is enthusiastic, saying that the therapy will forge new brain pathways and even cause me to use my body better—“It’s all related,” he says. Even so, I’m not sure I’d make this commitment were I not an artist, and if I hadn’t recently been reading about the brain and the importance of exposing it to non-habitual activity.

To that end I’ve also resolved to use the hour each way in the car to study French. I originally learned it as an adult (for three years at The New School with Huguette Martel, an inspired teacher of subtle humor who has also done cartoons for The New Yorker) and was appalled to find, on my last trip to Paris, that only the nouns were left.

However for me to stay interested there has to be an aesthetic component—I can’t imagine anything more tedious than driving back and forth to Northampton repeating phrases like "Où se trouvent les toilettes s'il vous plaît ?" –so I’ve decided to memorize French poems from podcasts by a woman named Camille Chevalier, who makes even the depressing and pedantic 19th century poem El Desdichado by Gérard de Nerval sound musical and uplifting. After a few trips I may not be able to locate the bathroom but I’ll be smarter and able to explain to anyone who asks that “Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie” (My only star is dead, and my starry lute bears the black sun of melancholy).

Monday, September 21, 2009

Artists Without Mortarboards

Somehow, even with my New York Times “Alerts,” I missed Roberta Smith’s article (Sept. 13) “Artists Without Mortarboards.” I did, however, catch this letter in yesterday’s Times from Jeff Abell, associate chairman of the interdisciplinary arts department of Columbia College in Chicago, where, as visiting artist, I taught for a term in 2004:

Ms. Smith’s article has made the already tenuous tenure of artists in academia even more tenuous. Her call for artists to go forth without credentials is naïve at best and seems to assume that graduate programs fail to teach artists survival skills or encourage them to develop emotionally vivid works.

I concur with Ms. Smith that the Ph.D. in art is a bad idea in the United States, where an M.F.A. entails 60 hours of graduate credit. No one says an education is cheap.

To imply, however, that this is money ill spent is to endanger the job of every artist with a university appointment. That Ms. Smith thinks a band of renegade conceptual artists will do a better job of teaching young artists than university professors do is insulting. It’s also like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, as it comes at a time when many colleges are already cutting art faculty.

Although I could be considered a casualty--I'd love to do more teaching-- this reminds me of the lawmaker I saw on television news some years ago, talking about how municipal water supplies should not be improved because it would threaten the bottled water industry (looks as if he got his way).

It's a sure sign that a discipline has become too academically entrenched when its practitioners are threatened by anyone they have not themselves ordained as “expert” or “professional.”

And especially incongruous in a field where the job is to ask questions, not answer them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

High, low & in-between


Thursday night a bunch of us ran around like madmen in the rain to as many Chelsea openings as we could squeeze into the two-hour window. I wanted my socks knocked off but alas, they were not. (No doubt 21st century art will look very different from 20th century art, but no one seems to have figured it out yet.)

William Blake at the Morgan Library

Friday, however, Roberto had the brilliant idea of spending the day, also rainy, at the Morgan Library where William Blake’s World: A New Heaven is Begun had just opened (runs through January 3rd). The exhibition is gorgeous, with wall text even I approve of: Blake’s poems and descriptions of his images. Fortunately there were few enough visitors that I could quietly speak the poems to myself, which is how I most enjoy poetry and its cadence. There were also illuminated medieval manuscripts from the collection, where the text follows the back story of a prayer book that was cut up and pieces sold, only to be discovered later and re-inserted into the original. Without Roberto’s prodding I would’ve skipped the show of acquisitions since 2004, small gems from various eras chosen with a discerning curatorial eye (or, no doubt “eyes” – the curators aren’t credited). Contemporary highlights were Mary Frank’s owl, a black presence with spread wings that hovers across the top of an otherwise blank white paper, a Jim Dine drawing of wrenches from 2000 that’s absolutely beautiful (I haven’t lost my mind, it really is), a sweet little James Siena and a small, stunning Stephen Antonakos painting of an interrupted red circle on a bright blue background—none of which I can post because, here again, photographs were prohibited, and there was no press material at the front desk (they said it was “too soon” for the Blake) nor anyone available to talk to.

We had a posh lunch in the paneled and high-ceilinged dining room (under the self-important gaze of Mr. Morgan’s portrait) where I enjoyed a tower of perfectly pan-seared rainbow trout, Nick had the Apre Fronte ravioli (whatever that is), and Roberto feasted delicately on the lunch special that was inspired by the medieval manuscript exhibition: tiny roasted legs of quail with a watercress and red grape salad and an aperitif of iced mead, which tasted of honey and flowers.


I love it when artists do stuff just for the sake of doing it, and I’m actually happier crammed into a scruffy walk-up loft with 100 people drinking warm beer than in Mr. Morgan’s rarified dining room. So Friday night, still in the rain, I negotiated the long desolate streets of Long Island City to attend one of Matt Freedman’s projects, “Twin Twin III, Artists Edition” on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Matt, an old friend, has a rumpled disarming manner and genuinely seems to think he doesn’t know anybody or do anything when, in fact, he knows everyone and is always working on a gazillion quirky projects, none of which—like the “Iron Artist” event he arranged at PS 1 in 2006—ever promises the remotest possibility of remuneration. Another friend, who he doesn’t know, described Matt as “a Williamsburg fixture” which I thought sounded too static. Matt suggested “dynamic presence” or “moving target” but said anything was fine as long as it wasn’t “local artist.”

The idea behind “Twin Twin” came from being so bombarded with images by the media after September 11th that anything that was long, narrow, rectangular and there were two of began to bear a creepy resemblance to the World Trade Center buildings. Previous shows consisted of a collection of everyday objects and pieces he’d modeled, but for this third iteration it seemed natural to Matt, whose projects are often contingent on the contributions of others, to open it up to 50 or so artist friends (my contribution was a pair of found champagne glasses gilded with “2001”). The result, as it was installed in Kate Teale's Big & Small/Casual Gallery (up for only three days), was a hodge-podge, darkly funny and unnerving.

Matt in a photograph from the 2006 Pierogi edition:

And Kate’s niece, Rose, at the opening, inadvertently surrounded by many “twin towers.”

Photo by David Henderson

Afterward we went to have barbecue at a nearby bar where the cook alternately doled out dollar bills to make change and arranged spare ribs ($10) on paper plates without removing his latex gloves, and I had to protect my portion from the big dog that was under the table. The ribs were delicious.


Saturday evening it was not raining (much), and I was back in the Berkshires for the opening of a group show, “The Great Impression,” at Geoffrey Young’s gallery in Great Barrington. Geoff is a writer, poet, publisher (poetry and art criticism, including anthologies by Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl), and onetime professor who has operated out of this small, second floor space for as long as I’ve been coming to the Berkshires. Open Thursday through Saturday five and a half months a year, it’s a real gallery, in the sense that Geoff actually does sell work, but it’s usually small and affordable, often unframed, tacked up on the wall. Also Geoff can be haphazard about his mailing list (if you get dropped off it, don’t take it personally) and updating his Web site (it’s current now, but last month when I was in one of his shows, a friend called and said, “The opening is Sunday, not Friday, and you’re not in it” to which I suggested she check the date—2008). But while Geoff is happy to do business, it’s not really the point—which is, as far as I can tell, to have a good time and stimulate intellectual foment in these bucolic parts. And that he does very well. He’s a master at mixing things up—well-known artists, such as Jim Shaw and James Siena, known and not-so-known area artists, and discoveries from New York and elsewhere. Where and how Geoff finds artists seems to be his secret, but his eye is sure, and with every show there’s at least one happy surprise. He opens his rambling art-filled Victorian home to the out-of-towners and everyone gathers there after dinner to play ping-pong and talk about art in a way that never seems to happen in the city.

For dinner we went downstairs on Railroad Street to Allium, a restaurant that doesn’t quite live up to its pretentions—or price—but the company made up for it. And I have to admit the maple pot de crème was amazing.

From the show:

Cary Smith, New Graphite, Small Drawing #8, 2009, 12" x 11'

Erick Johnson, Untitled (PP78). 2008, Gouache on paper, 8.5" x 11".

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


The art world keeps us perpetual children in that we never lose that “back-to-school” feeling as we look forward to September’s first openings with both dread and excitement. Do you have your clothes laid out?

Anne Truitt, Pith, 1969

This season, however, got an early start with Glenn Beck’s debut as an art critic, which would be hilarious if there weren’t those out there who take him seriously. But why do we need Glenn Beck when we have our own Charlie Finch, who approaches his subjects with similar breathy astonishment and twisted logic? Consider his passive-aggressive Artnet piece (entitled “Mother-in-law”) on the late Anne Truitt’s upcoming survey at the Hirshhorn, where he mixes grudging admiration for her work (“The Hirshhorn retrospective should vault her into a special pantheon of her own, one which she occupied in privacy during her own life and in public now that her work belongs to the world”), with obvious glee at finally having an opportunity to get back at the bitch.

Anne Truitt, Hardcastle, 1962

Not to speak of being sexist while pretending to be critical of those who were. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Finch starts out by saying, “She was the driest, most detached person I had yet encountered, so removed that she toasted us young newlyweds at our reception by remarking that ‘it is like watching them go down Niagara Falls in a barrel.’" Hmmm. Far from being detached and removed, it sounds as if Truitt was nothing but present and prescient, feeling as any parent might on the occasion of her daughter being married to this guy.

In true Glenn Beck-like fashion, the revengeful son-in-law randomly weaves together biographical non sequiturs to make Truitt sound like a nut job: “She was obsessed with Alexander the Great, kept a picture of her Indian guru, whom she had never met, on her kitchen wall, and, at one point, conspired with other powerful Washington wives to drug their husbands’ cocktails with LSD in order to end the Vietnam War, though this plot was probably never realized.” Oooh! A picture of a guru on her wall! That she’d never met! As for the LSD plot, I’d like to see it properly footnoted. And God help me if some future biographer ever finds out how many books I’ve read on Elizabeth I.

Or how, in the studio, “she was painstaking to a fault” (to a fault?) and that one sculpture “marks the beginning of a self-enforced calm” as if she was barely able to keep the lid on.

Anne Truitt, Bloomsday, 1962

Finch’s sexism can be found in the order of things: “In the politics of art, she had helped Morris Louis' widow unroll his canvases, enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Kenneth Noland and was championed as an original by Clement Greenberg.” How differently these examples would read in reverse.

And here: “In addition to her large and adoring family, Anne was also the product of some especially fecund friends, in the thinking sense….” She was the product? Can you imagine saying that Donald Judd (or any male artist) was the product of his adoring family and, by implication, his obviously smarter friends? Or mentioning that he had helped unroll a peer’s canvases as a major life detail?

And finally there’s the insistence on tying the work with the personality and minimizing it by association with bits of biographical trivia as in “each is also a tribute to a specific relationship in her life” or that a certain sky-blue sculpture “represents a certain innocence and clothing color worn by the daughter I married” –this of a an artist who wrote in her memoir Daybook (published in 1982 and still in print) that it was “an essence rather than objects that held me, so I find it is only the abstract part of my experience that is real for me “(p.164) and that she wished “to set color free for its own sake” (p.89).

Loose biographical interpretation (which, in the art world, can sometimes be as fanciful as Beck’s diatribe) is cheap art criticism, the fall-back of critics and curators who don’t know any other way (how about observation?) to approach a work of art. For in the end what’s important is not how it got there, but what it is.

Anne Truitt in her Washington studio, 1962 (all images from